Fair Questions: Why so much sympathy for Trump voters?

One of our Canadian friends has kindly offered a trigger warning to Trump fans, advising up front that she will be calling them racists.  And she wonders why we’re all taking the time and effort to understand their concerns when we don’t do the same for Hillary Clinton supporters.  That one’s pretty obvious: the concerns of Hillary Clinton supporters are well-known and well-understood.

For one, they didn’t want Donald Trump anywhere near the White House in a position of power.  That’s a very legitimate concern.  They thought that there was a sexist backlash against her, and may have thought that a female President might do something to normalize women being in leadership roles and reduce that sexism long-term.

They thought that Hillary Clinton was very experienced politically, that she had a record of getting things done.  They thought that Hillary Clinton generally shared their political interests more than the alternatives.  And all that’s fair enough.  I’m not a Hillary Clinton supporter (or a Trump supporter), but I understand the concerns and arguments of the people who do support her.

How many people who supported Hillary Clinton really understood the concerns of Trump supporters?  That they had good reason to think that Hillary Clinton wasn’t being transparent about her intentions?  That they had good reason to think she had sold out to her corporate donors?  That it was increasingly clear for decades that middle-class white folks were no longer under the patronage of the Democratic party?  That she was willing to bail out the big banks before bailing out Democrats who voted faithfully for her party in the past?

That she was part of an established political class that believes they’re uneducated, stupid, and vile bigots?  That they had good reason to think that she looked down on them condescendingly, which she demonstrated when she called a majority of Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”?

I realize that Donald Trump said far worse things than that during the campaign, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he didn’t bother to apologize even partially for his insults.  And Tabatha Southey is absolutely right that many of his supporters are less sympathetic to minorities than we are to Trump supporters.  But the answer to that isn’t to vilify and lambaste Trump supporters, but rather to help them see how much the situations of minority groups are like their own in terms of legitimate grievances.

That’s how you bring people together, by cultivating sympathy for everyone with legitimate grievances rather than just certain groups and working on them in concert.  And this is an important point for progressives and/or modern liberals to understand if they want to succeed politically and socially.

Being sympathetic to minority groups who get extra obstacles thrown in their paths is a good thing.  It just seems insincere and ideological when progressives and modern liberals are happy to give the benefit of the doubt to minorities who are struggling and claim that we need to understand that it’s the forces that surround them, their circumstances that lead to the drug abuse, the dysfunctional family life, crime as a way of scraping by economically, and their distrust of all white folks.

Why does it seem insincere?  After all, those are things we should understand.  Just don’t expect the rest of us to fail to notice that your belief in the overwhelming power of external forces to shape families and individuals in such a way that they are more likely to engage in harmful and unhealthy behaviors isn’t applied consistently.  We notice that this sympathetic rhetoric disappears when white folks are engaging in harmful and unhealthy behaviors.

That these people are adults who are accountable for their choices was largely taken as an unduly harsh sentiment in this election. But there is no parent’s note for bigotry. No teacher would accept “Little Timmy can’t help but hate Mexicans today because he had a dentist appointment.”

In the above quote, Southey rightly points out that these Trump supporters are adults who are accountable for their choices.  That’s true.  And we should fight the racism and sexism whenever it’s promoted under the banner of Trump support (or any other time).

At the same time, progressives and modern liberals will be sorely disappointed if they think that the approach that they use for garnering sympathy for minorities will not also be used to garner sympathy for ethnic majority groups.

When you let loose into the wilds of human society an analytical approach that searches for oppression and often finds it in the most unlikely of places along with the obvious cases, don’t be surprised when someone applies it consistently and gets results you weren’t looking for.

Every time I’ve seen white progressives take steps to protect and benefit minority groups, I’ve been in agreement with their intentions and worried that their tactics would come back to bite them.  And that’s exactly what keeps happening.

Well-meaning progressives keep trying to shore up the levers of power to help minority groups, and then the levers of power end up in the hands of the majority, a majority who continues to see their interests as disconnected from the interests of minorities in part because progressives keep pushing the narrative that our political interests are determined by our race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever’s the next cause du jour.

Well, guess what?  If progressives and modern liberals keep pushing the narrative that white people are the problem, that white people need to be taken down a peg or 5 in society, that white people are racists, and also that all of our political interests are determined by our demographic categories, then what is the most likely outcome?

Resentment and backlash.  White-identity politics resurgent.  Admittedly, that’s not the mature response I would prefer to see from my fellow white Americans.  It would certainly be better if their response to being called dumb racists was more compassionate and involved seeking to understand progressive concerns.

At the same time, it shouldn’t be surprising that resentment and backlash are the result when you work against people rather than with them, when you scapegoat them rather than bringing them on board, when the price of ideological loyalty is to feel guilty about the paleness of one’s skin and publicly profess one’s pale skin-induced horribleness which exists in the form of an ever-expanding list of privileges.

I just read a friend’s Facebook post which said, “I am so, so sorry to be a white male right now. We are a horrible group of people.”  It reminded me of a lot of other public cases of race-based and gender-based self-mortification driven by unhealthy guilt.  Fortunately, many of his friends who happen to have been born into various minority groups told him not to indulge in self-loathing and spend his energy fighting with them for equality instead.

That’s all very healthy.  But that self-loathing won’t go away because it’s the natural result of the analytical framework currently in vogue in academic circles.  It’s the logical consequence of using Critical Theory as a catch-all method of examining everything in human society.  If you spend all your time looking for oppression, oppressed classes, and the oppressor class, you’ll inevitably find them with the magic of confirmation bias.

Because we humans always want someone to blame, we quite naturally find a group to scapegoat.  Sometimes it’s Jews or other ethnic or religious minorities who get blamed as a group.  But analytical approaches found in Critical Theory help us turn that around and blame cisgender white heterosexual men.  And unsurprisingly, white men who buy into that analytical framework end up blaming themselves because they are a member of the oppressor class.

Whether it’s intended to be a feature or a bug, I don’t know.  But it is simply how it works.  And it’s not going away, nor will its consequences go away, until progressives and modern liberals take a hard look at the limitations of their thought processes and find better ones than the current progressive analyses.

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2 Responses to Fair Questions: Why so much sympathy for Trump voters?

  1. Jack says:

    Great analysis, Sam. I’ve found the notion of “privilege” is tricky, because there are thousands of attributes we can point to that grant certain kinds of privilege. For example, I am privileged because I have pale skin, because I have two legs that function reasonably well, because I don’t have schizophrenia, because my parents didn’t beat the snot out of me when I was a kid, etc. The answer is not to break my tibia in order to put me on an equal class with the wounded veteran, or to send me to a prison camp so that I can be beaten to a pulp like the person who was abused as a child–the answer is in raising up those who are oppressed. The problem with identifying people as “white” and “black” and then assigning blame (or innocence) to one side or the other is that it simply perpetuates the old racist paradigm, in which the most important factor about a person is the paleness of one’s skin. There are some (probably a minority) who actively rebel against such labelling. When I was a teenager, I read the autobiography of George Foreman. In the introduction to his book, he said that he was going to avoid mentioning the skin color of any of any person in the book, because he didn’t think that information was very important. Perhaps that is too idealistic, but it does highlight an important truth, that skin color continues to affect our thinking because we (as an aggregate) allow it to do so. Human nature undoubtedly has something to do with this–we tend to socialize and develop close bonds with those who remind us of ourselves, and physical appearance does play a role in our thinking in that regard. Other physical characteristics, such as eye color or hair color, are much less noticeable and therefore less likely to be important when classifying people into groups. What I don’t buy into is the idea that the problems of the African-American community are “their” problems…no. If they are Americans, if they are my countrymen, then those are my problems, too. I have some hope that we can work these things out, but I think it will take 20-30 years to start to putt a meaningful dent in these problems. It starts with intentionally educating the current generation of preschoolers and school children to resist bias and therefore avoid the “old” ways of thinking that we tend to fall into almost reflexively.

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